By Rob Ketcham
The Cullman Times
To a high school student-athlete, nothing stings quite like a playoff loss.
They represent the end of a season, and for some, the end of a career.
That's why it was understandable for many members of the Cullman High football team to react so emotionally following a 29-22 third-round defeat at the hands of No. 5 McAdory Friday night on the road.
Bearcat coach Mark Britton could only do his best to console the players who fought back tears on the field and in the locker room as the final score settled in.
“These kids put so much into it. You've got to realize these guys have been busting it since the first day of June,” he said. “7-on-7s. Weight lifting four days a week. They've had less than two weeks total where we haven't played football in the last 13 weeks. They had Saturdays off, and that's about it.”
That hard work paid off on Friday night, as Cullman pushed a McAdory team not many gave it a chance of ever beating to the brink.
The Bearcats completely dominated the opening half, scoring once in each of the first two quarters.
Both touchdowns were credited to running back Garrett Crider who barreled in from three yards out on fourth-and-inches and then plowed ahead for a 1-yard score with less than a minute left in the second quarter.
Trey Moon intercepted a tipped pass for the Black and Gold, but McAdory's Damien Whitfield snagged a pick of his own on the ensuing possession and returned it 85 yards to leave the Yellow Jackets in a 14-7 hole at halftime.
After mustering only 64 yards of total offense in the first 24 minutes, McAdory looked more like the 12-0 squad it was on the opening drive of the third quarter.
Kyran Moore connected with Desmond Young on a 42-yard touchdown pass to even the score at 14-14 with less than two minutes off the clock, and Whitfield put the Yellow Jackets on top with another pick-six just seven minutes later.
“It's just hard to overcome two interceptions for touchdowns,” Britton said. “Unfortunately, two balls were tipped right into their hands.”
Down by seven entering the fourth quarter, the Bearcats showed they weren't done yet. The Black and Gold pulled within one on a 12-yard scoring strike from Zac Crocker to Houston Turner and then seized the lead the following play when Crider ran in for his second successful 2-point conversion of the night.
The lead only lasted about two minutes, however, as McAdory capped off a 52-yard drive with a 1-yard touchdown run from Moore. Garian Bradley bulldozed in on the 2-point conversion for what turned out to be the final points of the ballgame.
The end result ultimately wasn't what Cullman wanted, but Britton wasn't about to complain with the effort he saw from his boys against Class 5A's fifth-ranked squad.
“I'm real proud of our kids,” the coach said. “I think the folks that were watching saw the athleticism this bunch has. I thought our kids contained them for the most part and just really played a great ballgame. It's just unfortunate we came up short tonight.”
Crocker was solid in his final game behind center for the Bearcats, completing 23 of 39 passes for 209 yards and a touchdown. Houston Turner caught nine of those passes for 102 yards and a score, while Wesley Hendrix piled on six receptions for 76 yards.
Crider racked up 111 yards and two touchdowns on 25 carries. Drew Johnson accounted for 65 rushing yards on 14 carries.
The Black and Gold will lose 20 players — Crocker, Cody Kane, Hendrix, Johnson, Turner, Troy Forrest, Josh Reed, Richard Poston, Keary Thomas, Corey Parrish, Alex Rakestraw, Reid Harrison, Hunter Riley, Chase Kennedy, Chris Johnson, Zane Nicholas, Dylan Mortan, Jordan Van Gundy, Chris Grey and Drew Ralph — to graduation in the spring.
“My quarterback, receivers, my secondary, my senior class just showed so much leadership this year,” Britton said. “They never went into a place where they didn't battle it right to the end, and tonight was no different. I'm hurting for them right now but I'm real proud of them.”
He also wanted to express his appreciation for his coaching staff.
“They busted it countless hours, and I know our kids appreciate that, too,” Britton said. “We just have a great bond with these kids, such a great chemistry.”
A third-round loss and 10-3 season is certainly nothing to sulk over. Cullman High principal Elton Bouldin was able to put the 2012 campaign in perspective as the players passed him by heading into the locker room at the end of the night.
“It was one to remember,” he said. “That's for sure.”